Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Reflection on an election, or: Fr Jerome, I'd like to change my answer

My eyes opened into darkness from a dream I couldn't remember.  I could hear the sound of the heating coming on, like miners working far below me.

So it was between 05.45 and 6am.

As I emerged from the depths, I could hear the whispers in my head, and in a half-dream, could see President Obama swiftly walking the halls of the White House, calling to Michelle and the girls, 'Come on, we have to see the concession speech!' Romney and Co. were a blur, but they were clearly outside.

I pulled into total wakefulness and stared into the darkness, paralysed, unsure of what to do, what I wanted to know. T had told me last night that she would most likely email me I took a deep breath and reached for my phone. The 'M', indicating new messages in my inbox, glowed balefully at me. I took a deep breath, pressed the Gmail icon and saw the subject line of my most recent email: "Obama wins". I grinned, lay in the dark for another couple of minutes, then saw another email from T - "Mitt Romney", telling me he'd conceded. I turned on the light and flew down the steps to turn on the telly, only to see Mittens hugging his family, knowing it was over. 

Knowing I'd never get back to sleep, I nipped into the shower, got dressed and headed in for the 07.30 mass.

Back in 2009, a certain clerical friend couldn't resist teasing me: "She gets this smile on her face every time she says, 'Barack Obama'," he said, claiming my smile looked very much like the Reality side of this picture (he might not be wrong; I couldn't possibly comment).

Couldn't resist stopping by him and whispering in the pre-mass silence, "I STILL smile when I say 'President Barack Obama'," which earned me a trademark look.

After mass, I went to light 2 candles - one in thanksgiving for a peaceful election and one for a first birthday girl, and briefly ran into Fr Jerome setting up for mass in the Lady Chapel. I motioned that I was just lighting candles and whispered that I was very pleased with the election result.

He looked puzzled, asking if there had been an election recently.

I suggested there might have been one somewhere out West, and he nodded in agreement. I added that at least we wouldn't be run by crazy capitalists, then went, 'But wait...'

He responded, 'Does it really make any difference?'

In a moment of cynical defensiveness, I shook my head and said, 'No.'

Fr Jerome, I'd like to change my answer. I know you'll let me because you are as committed to learning, introspection and analysis as my grandfather was - and if through that process, one comes to a different conclusion, then you, like he, would insist that one's answer must change - it's a matter of integrity.

Though maybe in my case, I just hadn't thought yet, because I was afraid to be vulnerable in my hope, to stand up and say, 'Yes, yes it does matter, though I can't put it into words yet.'

So, Padre, I want to say, 'Yes. Yes, it does matter.'

You're right (ask me for that in triplicate and notarised, I don't say it often!) - in certain ways, it doesn't.  In many ways, money runs the show no matter who's at the helm. The parties aren't that different. Neither man would change the system to move it more in line with the Catholic social teaching we hold so dear. No one (at the moment) is going to be able to abolish the death penalty, say 'no more war', implement distributive justice. In that sense, maybe it doesn't seem to matter.

But in another sense, it matters very much indeed. 

See, Padre, I would argue that we don't really vote on policy, we vote a reflection: a reflection of how we see and define ourselves, of who we want to be, of what we believe, of our emotional state.

And that's where it made every difference.

Yes, we voted for a man who can get caught up in his own thoughts and paralyse his decision-making, who allowed himself to hobbled by Republican obstructionism, who didn't decisively bring an end to it, who should have listened more to his own LBJ (Rahm Emmanuel) when it came to working with Congress. 

We voted for a man who makes mistakes - but thinks about them, acknowledges them and can learn from them. We voted for a man who believes in process, in the right of all voices to speak, not in shutting down the voices that disagree with him:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.

That we have elected a leader who is willing - even eager - to allow this room for dissent is a profound change from the fear-based years after 9/11, when civil liberties started disappearing faster than gin & tonic at a Catholic priests' convention held in Oxford.

We voted for a man who pushed through provision for affordable healthcare for all, despite shrill, angry opposition. Was it the version we'd all hoped for? Maybe not, but it was a start. We voted for a man who put his arm around a sobbing woman after a hurricane devastated her home. We voted for a man who loves his family fiercely in every action he takes, not just in every word he says. We voted for a man who listens and thinks before answering. We voted for a man who wrote back to a young girl, reassuring her that her unconventional family was perfect: "In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity...Our differences unite us. (as well as apologising for not being able to drop in for dinner)" We voted for a man who values education and opportunity for everyone no matter who they are.

We voted for a man who can laugh at himself - the most reliable sign of sanity.

We voted for a man who, as soon as it was over, reached across the divide to his opponent and let the bitterness of the campaign go.

And we voted for a man who holds, at the deepest level, that even as we are many, so are we one - that we are a society, not an aggregate of individuals. The antithesis of the Thatcher-Reagan worldview. 

Why does it matter? Because if you want to understand classroom dynamics, look to the teacher. A religious community, look to the abbot/prior/leader. A business, look to the CEO/founder. A school, to the principal. A country, to its leader. If you want to understand the system, look to the leader, who permeates and drives it with his values through his choices and actions.

The tangible results of the presidency may, in the end, not have been that different, because of the system. But  the atmosphere in which those choices and that discussion will be steeped ensures that the country which emerges will be profoundly different.

Yesterday, we voted for compassion over calculating, Ayn Rand-style selfishness. We voted for freedom of speech over fear. We voted for diversity over conformity, even as we voted for society over individualism. Yesterday, we voted to listen rather than screech. We voted for forgiveness over bitterness and sanity over self-righteousness. We voted for real but imperfect over slick and manufactured.

Yesterday, we peered out from behind years of fear, anger and tightly barricaded hearts and dared to dream:

I'm not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I'm not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

Yesterday, our stubborn country voted for that stubborn theological virtue: hope. And in that opening, even if it is just the tiniest sliver, to hope, to compassion, to dreaming, we opened the door to that greatest of theological virtues: love.

No matter how we cloaked it - voting against one person; for the lesser of two evils; for this issue or that issue - as a collective, that is what we did. We took a trembling step out from behind our fear with our clenched fists and moved uncertainly towards hope, opening our hands, even if just a little. We moved towards home.

So yes, Fr Jerome, it does matter. It matters very much indeed.


Unknown said...

I have some friends over on Livejournal who would really love to read this post. Would you mind if I linked to it over there?

~ Hazel xx

Larisa said...

"Yesterday, we voted for compassion over calculating, Ayn Rand-style selfishness." Yes! That sums up why I am a Democrat and not a Republican regardless of who is representing either party.

Thank you for this lovely post.